Steel slats were not in the American day to day vocabulary merely a few years ago, yet the immobile blinds that litter part of the American-Mexican border are recognizable as soon as a viewer enters the GALA Hispanic Theatre for the In Series presentation of “La Paloma at the Wall.” This opera/theatre piece provides a glimpse into some of the narratives that have surrounded the border while reinventing a century old zarzuela, which could be described as a precursor to the theatrical musical.
This version of “La Paloma” is set at the US/Mexico border, which is described as being between Tijuana and San Diego. The primary character of political interest, Paloma (Elizabeth Mondragon), is a migrant from Guatemala, who has been separated from her daughter. In a solemn detachment, she tells her horrific story to a border officer and translator in an attempt to discover where her daughter may have gone. The US Border Officer informs her they do not know her whereabouts.
The action of the story is then whisked away into a colorful bar in Mexico, where we meet an American, Don Jack (Lew Freeman) and a local judge, Don Sebastian (Carlos Macher), who treats the audience to a bouncy little ditty, which has some disturbing subtext. Don Jack has taken an interest in Susana (Mia Rojas), a woman who works at the bar. He later blackmails her into staying the night with him, and Susana is helpless. Susana and Don Jack are both unaware that Paloma, who was just hired as help for the bar, overheard the conversation. The drama plays out with various skirmishes that parallel the original zarzuela “La Verbena de la Paloma,” with a happy ending for all the protagonists, including the surprise hero, Paloma.
The core of “La Paloma” was anchored by the astounding vocals. The cast worked seamlessly with the on-stage orchestra to balance volume and intensity, which worked well in the theatre’s intimate space. The design had a natural flow between set elementals, music, and dialogue, never leaving the audience hanging onto a pause or distracting them from the plot.
With so many moving parts, ‘La Paloma at the Wall’ is a work of communal art that expresses itself as a palette of politics, opera, theatre, and dance.
Each performer brought something special to the production. Mondragon’s performance as Paloma was delightful. Her simplicity balanced the flamboyancy of some of the other characters, but her operatic vocals turned heads. Her singing was always welcomed throughout the production. Lew Freeman as Don Jack was a devil and played the antagonist well. Besides a believable and strong performance as the character, his baritone voice commanded the stage with grace and power. A surprise featured actor, Nigel Rowe as Pedro the police guard, sprung to center stage in the first act of the show to deliver a jaunty tune about his Oaxaca roots. Rowe’s voice soared up and down the musical staff, while also flaunting his comedic talents.
Many moments gleamed as special and memorable throughout the production. Francisco the bar owner (Gustavo Ahualli) attempted to sing a beautiful ballad about his child, while his wife Rita (Katherine Fili) interrupted his sweet song and roared from offstage to demand his presence. Mia Rojas (Susana), Teresa Ferrara (Casta), and Vivian Allvin (Tia Antonia) lit up the stage whenever they were together. Ian McEuen (Julian) was fiery and haughty, which lent to lively scenes. Finally, Carlos Macher (Don Sebastian) escalated the tension of Susana’s circumstances, but quickly did the right thing and listened to the silent hero, Paloma.
A unique aspect of this production, worthy alone as a reason to view “La Paloma,” is the border wall replica. It is beautifully muralized by teenagers from the Latin American Youth Center. Fluorescent blues, pinks, and yellows highlight the natural imagery, yet also draw attention to the unnatural and obtrusive steel wall. Writer Anna Deeny Morales threaded new and old together to create a script that would resonate with the modern audience. Ulises Eliseo adapted and arranged the music from original composer Tomas Breton successfully for this updated piece. A truly collaborative and community effort, Corazon Folklórico, a Mexican folk dance company, also provided the In Series with its expertise. With so many moving parts, “La Paloma at the Wall” is a work of communal art that expresses itself as a palette of politics, opera, theatre, and dance.
“La Paloma at the Wall” challenges its viewers to consider the obstacles and atrocities communities face. The In Series removes barriers between clashing cultures and blends them instead.
Running Time: About 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 20-minute intermission.
‘La Paloma at the Wall’ played through March 31, 2019, with the In Series at The GALA Hispanic Theatre. For more information on the rest of their season, click here.